“For the dead and the living, we must bear witness.” Elie Wiesel

Seventy years later, D-Day memories disappearing with local veterans

By Susan Carlman,  Dave Gathman and Steve Lord Sun-Times Media June 5, 2014 8:46PM

Paratrooper Art Miller Elgparties with  an 82nd Airborne Divisibuddy Jack Dempsey's Nightclub New York City after they returned Paratrooper Art Miller of Elgin parties with an 82nd Airborne Division buddy at Jack Dempsey’s Nightclub in New York City after they returned from World War II in 1946.

When the Aurora Public Library decided to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day, it set about to find veterans of that historic event on June 6, 1944.

They asked the help of the American Legion-Roosevelt Post in Aurora. But Herschel Luckinbill, a post member who is to be honored later this month as Illinois Veteran of the Month for his work with vets, said it was a fruitless search.

“It’s hard to find a D-Day veteran today,” he told a packed house Wednesday night at the library event.

Just 20 years ago, it was different. When the area celebrated the 50th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, almost 10 area veterans told our newspapers what they had gone through on that key day of World War II.

They included Mike Fik of Geneva, Eugene Bonk of Montgomery, Chuck Kincaid, Ed Fox, Lyle Turner and Jim Chase of Elgin; Neal Berke and Jerry Reagan of Dundee Township; Owen Brown of Aurora; Bob Ament of Yorkville; Joseph Ianno, who lived in both Naperville and Aurora. Other Naperville D-Day vets included Louis Trierweiler, Bob Blomberg and Stanley Edwards Jr.

There were men like Merritt King of Geneva and James Taff of St. Charles, who also recalled their experiences in 2004, on the 60th anniversary of the invasion.

As the 70th anniversary on Friday drew near, we tried to catch up with those same people. There are none left in the Aurora, Kendall or Tri-Cities area.

In Naperville, we found one D-Day veteran, Harry Brozynski. And Art Miller, a paratrooper who was one of the first in the Fox Valley to hit the beaches, is the sole survivor in the Elgin area.

Both survivors sat down to talk to us yet one more time. But even these much-appreciated interviews remind us that the veterans and the memories of what Studs Terkel called “the last good war” are departing from us quickly.

Painful memories

This week, a few months before his 89th birthday, retired bricklayer Art Miller remains spry, thin and as clear-minded as he did when he was interviewed in 1994.

But macular degeneration has stolen most of his eyesight, allowing him to read a doctor’s bill or peruse an old photo only with the aid of a magnifying reader.

Miller lives alone — wife Lois died in 2006 — in his family home on Elgin’s northeast side. Friends still come over to play cards. He occasionally walks over to the American Legion Hall a few blocks away — “but the tough thing is crossing Dundee Avenue with my eyesight.”

“You won’t get any war stories out of me,” Miller warned as he reluctantly agreed to sit down again to talk about D-Day. But the memories are there, he says, pointing to his forehead. He cheerfully shows off a photo showing him and a buddy from the 82nd Airborne celebrating their first day back in the States in 1946, inside Jack Dempsey’s night club in New York City.

Drafted two months after his 1943 graduation from Elgin High School, Miller volunteered to be a paratrooper “because I was young and careless, and it paid an extra 50 bucks a month.” He had been assigned to the legendary 82nd Airborne Division and had been sent to England to await the coming invasion.

Miller recalls that he enjoyed jumping out of planes so much in 1943 and 1944 that when other guys would be required to do “recertification jumps,” he would agree to do the jump for them, pretending to be them in return for $5. By war’s end, he had jumped 39 times. Those included combat jumps into the German army’s rear lines on the night before D-Day.

But when it comes to combat, some things are now just too painful for Miller to remember. Asked whether he ever had to kill a man, his failing eyes stare hard into space. He stays silent for a long minute. Finally he says, “No comment.”

In the 1994 interview, he had been able to say a bit more. He recalled how he had parachuted into the dark at about midnight, making him probably the first Elgin man to land on D-Day. His outfit’s mission was to seize a bridge behind the German lines to prevent enemy reinforcements from being sent up to the beaches where the main invasion force would land.

Miller said then that he barely knew the other 17 soldiers in the dark, tunnel-like C-47 plane as they flew through the even darker skies. Nobody shot at their plane as they stood up and jumped out.

As Miller hung defenseless below his impossible-to-miss billow of white canvas, he wondered what would be waiting down below.

The next thing he remembered was the surprising sensation of icy water on his legs. He had landed in a field the Germans had purposely flooded with canal water.

Loaded with 60 pounds of gear and with a big parachute collapsing onto him, Miller at first feared he would drown. He frantically pulled at the ring that would inflate his life preserver.

Each man carried a little metal clicker. If you ran into another human figure in the dark, you would click once. If the other person was an Allied soldier, he would click back twice. No return click and you started shooting.

Where Miller had landed, there were no German troops and only one other American. Clicking away like crickets at mating season, they waded to dry land and started exploring.

“Every time we heard something, we clicked. But most of those turned out to be cows,” Miller said. “Then we heard some gunfire. So we headed over that way.” But by the time they got there, the shooting had stopped.

By dawn Miller and his comrade had found six other paratroops.

“We just did what the lieutenant told us to do,” was about all Miller would say about D-Day itself and the days that followed. He said they moved around among the dense, head-high masses of brush called hedgerows that crisscross Normandy. They ran into Germans, they fired shots.

“We lost a lot of guys.”

After leaving the Army, Miller says, he never parachuted again.

‘History is made’

As the USS Herndon streamed toward the northwest coast of France early in June 1944, the skipper had advisory words for the sailors aboard the DD-638 destroyer.

“He says, ‘History is made, but never written,’” recalled Harry Brozynski, a longtime Naperville resident and Navy veteran, who was among those headed toward the beaches of Normandy.

The commanding officer, Capt. Granville Moore, implored his men of Company 1492 to be on high alert as they played a key role in clearing the way for the Allies to begin their march across Europe to thwart the tyranny of Adolf Hitler. It would help them survive, of course, but there was more to it than living to fight another day.

“He says, ‘Whatever you see, you hear, remember it … It’ll be your history,’” said Brozynski, 89, who understood he and his buddies would want to share their stories when the time was right.

“He said, ‘When kids see your medal and say, “Grandpa, what’s that for?” you can tell them.’”

Moore, who would proceed up the ranks to rear admiral in the coming years, earned a Silver Star for his actions in the following days. For Brozynski, it was a time of purpose toward peace. Some crafty diversionary tactics also played into the eventual hard-fought victory.

On June 5, the night before the troops stormed the coast, he recalls the skipper receiving an enormous package. The contents would remain a mystery until the call came to indicate battle was imminent.

“As he sounded general quarters, you looked up and saw this huge flag,” Brozynski said, alluding to the rippling banner that bore the distinctive intersecting stripes of the Union Jack. “You never heard such hooting and hollering.”

Moore ran up the Confederate flag as a way of confusing the enemy as to who was headed ashore. The cunning move was a morale booster.

Hitler’s occupying forces had tricks of their own, however. The massive mobilization saw two German aircraft strafe the shore.

“They were smart,” he said. “They knew if we fired on them, we’d be firing on our own ships.”

Brozynski was still serving on the Herndon on the triumphant day in September 1945 when Japanese Vice Admiral Kanako and his staff came aboard to put their signatures to the documents formalizing their surrender. It’s a little-known fact, he said, that the Allied victory marked in Tsingtao, China, came at the same point in the war’s story as Japanese leaders famously signing the instrument of surrender on board the USS Missouri, moored in Tokyo Bay.

He found it interesting, however, that when his discharge came through in 1948, he was stationed aboard the Missouri.

“I came full circle,” he said.

One of six brothers raised on the south side of Chicago who served during World War II, Brozynski crossed paths with some of his siblings during his six years at sea. All returned safely.

There were other family-related developments during Brozynski’s military hitch. On Feb. 23, 1946, he would marry high school sweetheart Lorraine Olson during his five-day leave. The pair now live in the Tabor Hills development on Naperville’s north side.

They’ve kept in touch with some of Brozynski’s fellow sailors, taking trips for reunions in the decades since the Allies prevailed, though most have passed away now.

He is pleased to have kept an extensive collection of documents, publications, photographs and other memorabilia that help tell the story of a war that circled most of the globe in the 1940s.

“Seventy years,” he said, looking over the assembled artifacts. “I can’t remember all of it. It’s a good thing I have all of this.”

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